From the Rolling hills of Leitrim to the Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts...

On the morning of her departure, my grandmother, Mary Anne McManus Owens ("Molly" to friends and "Nana" to us) woke to the sound of her mother hanging the kettle in the kitchens enormous fireplace.

The eldest of 10 children, she had the privilege of sleeping alone in the narrow pine bed, while her siblings slept three or four to a bed. As she carefully tucked in the sheet corners, she realised she was making her bed for the last time - Paddy, the next eldest, would inherit it that night.

She folded her thick, woollen blanket and placed it in a small, red chest while thinking about her uncle in America - a man she's never met, but one who had sent her money to purchase a one-way ticket to America and a new wardrobe for the journey. Then, slowly, she changed into one of her new dresses, luxuriating in the fabric as it slid over her head.

When she stepped into the kitchen, she marvelled at the feast her mother had spread out on the pine kitchen table and the drop-leaf table used for special occasions: breads, jams, bacon, eggs, pots of tea, jugs of milk, and plates of sweets. Looking at the tables, she reflected back upon the thousands of meals she'd shared with her family.

Scanning the room, she thought of how her 18 years of life in the same three room cottage - home since the day of her birth in 1903 - was drawing to a close. Although she tried to imagine her destination, New York, she couldn't conjure up any real images.

Standing there on her final day in East Barrs, Glenfarne she certainly never imagined that 82 years later, long after her own death, a yet-to-be born grandson would return to Ireland, rescue the tables, small chest, and pine bed from the elements and have them restored. The fact that he would have the furniture crated, loaded onto a plane, and flown across the Atlantic in just one day would have seemed more fanciful than any fairytale she'd ever heard.

That day, she often said, a dizzying mixture of anticipation and anxiety swirled through her head as the minutes ticked away. Images of Leitrim's rolling hills and glistening lakes would eventually fade, she feared. But the thought of familiar faces vanishing into darkness and familiar voices muting into silence seemed unbearable.

She wanted to share a few more moments with her mother, so she helped clean up thinking, with tears in her eyes, that they might never see each other again. Her younger sisters Catherine, Maggie, Beatrice, and Sarah washed and dried and my grandmother lovingly replaced each piece in its place of honour on the Irish dresser. Then she sat on the settle bed to the right of the door with a cup of tea and talked to friends and family members who filtered in and out of the house to say goodbye.

My grandmother lost herself in conversation until her father gently reminded her that the moment had arrived. With a deep breath, she rose, crossed the room, and entered her parents' small bedroom where her travel clothes - the most beautiful she'd ever seen, were laid out on the bed. After changing for the second time that morning, she adjusted her new hat in the family's only mirror, angled in a place of honour on her mother's chest of drawers.

When she stepped back into the kitchen, she opened her purse one last time; ticket, passport, pound notes, and shiny coins bearing the likeness of Irelands sovereign, King George V, were all in order. After a final sweeping look around the kitchen, she followed a crowd of well-wishers out the small, red door of the cottage, which everyone called "Frank Denis," to differentiate it from the "Francis Felix" McManus family next door.

Her fingers trailed across the red and white fuchsia blossoms bordering the narrow drive before Paddy helped her onto the donkey trap. Her mother, holding baby Rose Frances, settled in on the other side and her brother Denis passed the suitcase of neatly packed clothes to his father, who took the reigns.
My grandmother looked back at the little cottage as the donkey started with a jolt. The entire McManus clan - along with a troupe of friends and distant relatives - followed; laughing and joking as they plodded down the hill. My grandmother's heart beat faster with every bump. She scanned the countryside, burning details into her memory - the little cottages and barns, the trees she'd passed thousands of times, the cows and sheep in the fields, the old Stone Man holding vigil way up on the mountain, and the bushes where she picked blackberries to make jam.

Older neighbours stood in their front doorways or beside the road, waving at the small convoy as smoke from peat fires wafted out of their chimneys. They all knew Mary Anne was off to America. Their emotions were mixed: happiness at the thought of a better life that awaited her overseas and sadness at the thought of a of all those who had preceded her on the journey from East Barrs to America - never to return.

Her father manoeuvred the cart alongside the "Big Bog" railway stop at Michael Hugh Clancy's, before helping her down. Then, after she hugged everyone goodbye - clasping onto her mother until the last possible minute - Mary Anne McManus boarded the train she'd so often seen but never set foot upon.
She leaned out the window memorising faces as smoke puffed out of the steam engine. She shouted her last goodbyes as the wheels started to turn. She waved until her arm ached as the train chugged faster and faster, and she wiped away the tears streaming down her cheeks as those she left behind faded into smaller and smaller dots that eventually disappeared like the last speckle of sun at dusk.

Later that day she boarded the R.M.S. Baltic for the eight day journey to New York, where she was welcomed by cousins who nursed her through the tonsillectomy she underwent almost immediately after clearing immigration. Then, she went to work. Like many of her countrymen and women, work for my grandmother meant domestic service in pre-Depression New York - an era that marked the true end of robber baron extravagance, partially manifested in an upper crust that maintained multiple houses with 10, 50, or even 100 servants.

Decades later, when my sister, Christine, and I sat around our grandmother's table in Great Barrington, Massachusetts drinking tea, she often reminisced about those days. Seeing the lights of New York for the first time, she said, made her feel like she'd arrived in Heaven itself. Sinking into the luxurious, red velvet seat of a movie theatre as the lights went down, the curtains came up, and Charlie Chaplin danced across the screen made her feel like she was living in a fairytale.

She often drifted back into that world as she sat in the chaise-lounge on her glass-enclosed porch, gazing out at the three tall trees my grandfather had planted in a row; one for each of their children. New York of the 1920s remained a dream in her mind - a paradise inhabited by families with names like Vanderbilt and Whitney who lived in 20th Century palaces and provided people like my grandmother with comfortable, respectable jobs.

A paradise in which she bought the beautiful clothes she treasured as only someone who grew up with two dresses - one for school and Sundays and another for work - could. A paradise in which cooks in the houses of "rich people" conjured up whatever struck her fancy and gave her ice cream in hot summer days; luxuries beyond the imagination of a child reared on bread, vegetables grown on the farm, and meat once or twice a week. And, perhaps most vividly for her, a paradise filled with friends, laughter, and dances.

Although she realised the small luxuries of her life in New York, frugality was ingrained in my grandmother's core. From a monthly salary of $80 (in addition to room and board), she sent her mother $5, paid all her expenses, repaid the money advanced by her uncle, and saved as much as possible. Ultimately, the money she saved afforded her what was probably to her the greatest extravagance of her life. A woman whom I had never known to take a vacation - apart from a few days in Saratoga, New York for her honeymoon - determined not to be an immigrant who never returned home. In 1925, after four years in America during which her father had died and Ireland had finally shaken the yoke of British colonialism, she boarded the R.M.S. Adriatic and sailed back across the Atlantic to the land of her birth.

Those days on the boats and the six months she spent in Ireland were, she said, among the happiest of her life. To those she'd left behind, Mary Anne McManus must have seemed like Cinderella returning from the magic castle across the sea; a fairytale princess in beautiful clothes, hats, and high-heeled shoes. At the time, many people thought that money grew on trees in America, she explained. I now have a better understanding of why; this type of radical transformation in such a short period must have seemed miraculous.

I like to imagine her at 22, returning triumphantly up the hill with her head held high - her steamer trunk overflowing with gifts strapped to the back of a truck for hire. In four short years, she had succeeded beyond all of her adolescent dreams.

My grandmother frequently reflected back upon that trip home - the parties and dances, card games and family visits, trips to neighbours' houses and afternoon teas around the special drop-leaf table. I think my grandmother had many happy memories of her trip back across the ocean and up the hills to East Barrs.

Sometimes, she also reflected back upon the day when those six months ended, her skyblue eyes misting over as she recalled crying when she left her mother - knowing it was almost certainly for the last time - and glancing back over her shoulder at the small cottage as the truck carried her back down the hill.

My grandmother lived another 65 years, but she never returned to Ireland. She never again walked through the front door of the family's cottage; she never again heard her mothers voice; and she never again saw six of her siblings who either stayed in Ireland or immigrated to England.

Back in New York, she accepted a position as a chambermaid at the Gotham Hotel. If you visit Manhattan, you can still see it - remodelled and rechristened the Peninsula in the 1990s - standing majestically at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 55th Street.

Mr. Wetherbee, the hotel owner, summered in the Berkshire town of Great Barrington and wintered in Florida. Stoneyhurst, his thirty-two room house, was one of approximately 100 mansions in the Berkshire - the American aristocracy's equivalent of England's Lake District. Mr Wetherbee asked my grandmother to join his summer staff at Stoneyhurst, which she did for five years. But she always, returned to her beloved New York when the summer season ended. John Joseph Owens, my grandfather, was one of scores of local men who worked part time on the estate - raking the long drive of crushed, white marble and tending the 65 acres of fields, gardens, and green lawns that stretched into the horizon.

Hesitant to give up the life she loved in New York, she initially rejected my grandfather's proposals of marriage. He was, however, a persistent man. They married in Great Barrington in 1931, when my grandmother was 28 - practically an old maid by the standards of her times.

They received $100 from Mr Wetherbee and a three-acre plot down the road from Stoneyhurst from my grandfather's parents. On that land, the newly married couple built a three bedroom, one bathroom house, with a formal dining room, two enclosed porches, and shining new furniture. It would be their home for the rest of their lives and my home for a major part of my childhood.

Although my grandmother lived the rest of her life in this small Massachusetts town, far from her native land, the passing years never dampened her happy memories of home - memories that could only be related in words, for there were no pictures to guide us through the labyrinth of her early life. Her history always felt like a radio program to me; vivid descriptions sometimes relayed with sound effects, but void of images.

Like many Irish, she was a wonderful storyteller, more than compensating for a lack of pictures by interweaving her tales with fact and fiction. Her little green leprechauns hid pots of gold high up on the mountain, and in the bog, past the Stone Man, where the families cut turf. Fairies danced across the fields with flickering lights, and turkey cocks screeched before someone died or jumped in front of donkey carts at night to "scare people half to death."

The magical world was juxtaposed against a world of icicles dangling from the tea kettle when the fire died out on the long winter nights, children trudging through fields of snow to get to school, and strenuous chores throughout the year. I couldn't form a clear image of either world and often asked my grandmother questions to fill in the gaps.

I distinctly remember sitting in front of presents cascading into the living room from the Christmas tree in her house one year and asking what she'd received for Christmas as a child. "An orange," she replied. I didn't believe her at the time.

Religion was another important element of her stories: attending Mass every Sunday, making the sign of the Cross whenever passing in front of the church, saying the Rosary on her knees with her family each night. When she was overcome by a fit of the giggles during her prayers, she informed us, she'd soon feel her father's "switch" against the back of her legs.

She also described a religion steeped in superstition: People who sewed a button on a Sunday had the same button sewn onto their nose when they died. Others who transgressed in ways I no longer remember grew horns on their heads when they passed away.

Her "Irishness" stayed with her in innumerable other ways as well. Tea remained her drink of choice. My most indelible imagine of my grandmother is of her sitting at her kitchen table, rocking side to side (a habit she developed over a lifetime of caring for children) drinking a cup of tea. As a child, I drank so much tea that I never developed a taste for coffee and still don't drink it to this day.

Nearly seven decades of life in the United States never dulled the soothing lilt of her brouge either. Idioms like "God rest his [or her] soul," whispered every time she mentioned a deceased person, peppered her speech to the end.

Other idioms, I've never heard before or since, such as "he bit-to" (meaning "he must have") and "amn't I" (meaning "aren't I") also added colour to her speech. Above all, I remember her always launching into her tales with the words "back home in Ireland;" never just "back home" or never just "in Ireland."
These stories sparked my desire to see that mysterious world of her youth. In 1985, at the age of 20 - two years older she'd been when she first left Ireland - I flew to London on the first leg of my journey to study for a year in Nice, France.

After a short stay with friends in England, I caught a ferry from Holyhead to Dublin. I approached the journey one step at a time, never really knowing how I'd get from one place to the next. From Dublin, I took the train to Sligo, and in Sligo I hopped in a bus bound for Manorhamilton.

My heart beat accelerated as the bus brought me closer to a living piece of my history. Once I arrived in the small town, I found a bed and breakfast, left my backpack, and set out on foot to find East Barrs , about five miles from town. I stopped at multiple houses along the way to ask for directions and was invited in for tea each time.

One house belonged to one of my Great-Aunt Rose Frances's former classmates. Another belonged to the Egans; Sally Egan (nee O'Hara) had been raised in a house across the road from my grandmother's family farm. She explained that her family had modernised the homestead and that her sister, Mary Bridget O'Shea, was staying there during her visit from her home in England. Sally called Mary Bridget, who remembered my grandmother and immediately invited me to stay for a few days.

The sky was grey and it drizzled as I turned left off the main road at Cornacloy and continued up the hill, past St Michael's Church, rebuilt after a fire destroyed the original in which my grandmother had worshiped. I walked past the new school house, where little children rushed to the window to wave at the stranger in a bright-blue jacket, and past an old man with a cap, scything his field in just the same way it was done when my grandmother was a child.

When I crested another hill, I saw an old woman with thick glasses leaning on her cane in the middle of the road. At the same time, rays of sunshine penetrated the thick layer of clouds, striking the mountain, which burst into patched of brilliant green.

"I thought you were me grandson Michael come home from college," she said as I approached.
"No, I'm James Owens, from America. Do you happen to know where the McManus house is?" I asked.

"Which McManus house would you be looking for?" she replied.
"Paddy McManus," I said. "He's my great-uncle. My grandmother, Molly, left Ireland in 1921."
She paused for a moment and looked me straight in the eyes before replying, "Shoo if it isn't Mary Anne's grandson come home to Ireland."

No stranger before or ever since has ever uttered words that have touched me as much as those. I travelled to Ireland, two generations and 64 years after my grandmother had left; yet Mrs Sadie McManus welcomed me back like a long-lost relative.

As we walked back to her house, Mrs McManus pointed down across the fields to a small, grey stone cottage capped with a metal roof. It was, she explained, where my grandmother had grown up and where my great-Uncle Paddy still lived.

Her family's modern, two story house next door had once been its twin - two cottages build side by side by McManus brothers, she said, perhaps hundreds of years ago - no one knew for sure.
Sadie's son Francis McManus and his wife Theresa were surprised to find me on their doorstep (since they had no idea that I existed, let alone that I was walking up the hill from Manorhamilton).

Yet, they and their family also welcomed me with the legendary Irish hospitality I'd heard so much about in America. The tea kettle was immediately put on the stove and biscuits appeared out of a tin.
Later that day I met Paddy. Although he was bowed slightly with age and arthritis, his mind was as sharp as ever. People on the hill and in town called him "The Yank," he explained, because he'd lived in America for many years before returning to Ireland when my father was 14. He remembered my father and his siblings fondly and asked me many questions about them as he eased himself into a seat in the kitchen.

Francis later walked me around the perimeter of my family's farm. Holding that dirt in my hand for the first time, moulding it into a ball, I thought back to my great-grandparents, whose faces I'd never seen.
As my borrowed Wellingtons sank into the ground- up to my shins at times - I had trouble imagining how my great-grandparent could have fed a family of 12 with such poor quality soil. However, I learned that, as land owners, they were luckier than many and actually had, by the standards of local families at the time, a relatively comfortable life.

Aside from meeting the people in Leitrim, I was most struck by the dramatic views. My grandmother had never had much time for leisure as a child, let alone literature and poetry. I don't even know if she ever realised that Yeats hailed from this region. Walking up to the Stone Man on top of the mountain, looking over the sweeping valleys and undulating hills as the wind whipped around me, I understood how Ireland had inspired me, I understood how Ireland had inspired Yeats and many other brilliant writers.

I learned a great deal about my family history on that trip and my ties to Ireland were further cemented that year when I became an Irish citizen - a privilege accorded to me by virtue of my grandmother's birth in Leitrim.

When I returned to America, I showed my grandmother the pictures of Paddy and the farm. We talked about her memories and the people who still remembered her. I think she was happy to learn that she was still remembered, but, at the same time, I think seeing those pictures was a bittersweet moment for her.

As my great-uncles aged, the little cottage inevitably aged with them until the whitewashed, thatched home at the end of a path lined with fuchsia bushes was transformed into a dull, grey cottage with a metal roof in the middle of an overgrown field.

My trip also seemed to spark an interest in family history in some of my other relatives. My father's sister and her husband were next to visit the old homestead. I returned with my father and step-mother Charlotte in 1989 while I was living in London. I'll never forget how Paddy's face lit up when he saw my father after more than 40 years.

As my father and his uncle huddled together, delving into shared memories - separated only by a wisp of smoke from Paddy's cigarette - I was struck by their uncanny resemblance - almost as if my father was looking at a mirror image of himself 40 or 50 years into the future.

Paddy died six months later. Theresa and Francis tell me that those family visits were the highlight of his later years and that he talked about us until the end. My grandmother survived him by another six months, having lived by herself until the age of 87, when a massive stroke debilitated her shortly before her death.

Over the years all of my grandmother's children and four of her six grandchildren have visited the little farm in East Barrs. When my father and Charolette invited me to join them on a trip back to Ireland in October 2003, I was eager to return.

From photos my sister had taken the previous year, I knew the house - which had been uninhabited for more than a decade - still stood. But, the photos clearly showed that it was slowly, inevitable succumbing to the elements - its stone walls bowing further and further out as moisture seeped in.
Before Ieaving, I called Rose Francis in New York. As the only surviving McManus sibling, she had ultimately inherited the farm, and I asked her permission to save anything that was salvageable. Frugality is also part of her core and she encouraged me to be careful with my money, but told me that I should take anything that could be saved.

After a quick stop in Dublin for a private tour of Leinster House at the invitation of Fine Gael Leader Enda Kenny, whom my wife and I had met at a restaurant in Paris the previous year, Dad, Charlotte, and I drove to Leitrim. We had decided to spend most of the 10-day vacation visiting the lakes, waterfalls, megalithic sites, and castles of Leitrim, and we discovered a region of remarkable beauty.

When we arrived at the house in East Barrs, I found the furniture in a worse state than I'd imagined. The Irish dresser and settle bed I'd intended on saving were too far gone - in fact, when I sat on the settle bed the side fell off. Moisture seeping up through the floor and woodworm - the notorious enemies of soft Irish pine - had taken a severe toll, but I tried not to despair and set out to find a furniture restorer. In an ironic twist of fate, I was ultimately referred to Mark Wirtz, an expatriated American living in Sligo.

Mark drove up the hill in his sports utility vehicle, pulling a horse trailer borrowed from friends. After an initial inspection, he discouraged me from saving the furniture, explaning that the cost far outweighed the value. However, even in the land of Yankee sentimentality, I lean slightly toward genealogical zealotry and I was determined to save whatever I could.

After closer inspection, Mark told me that the kitchen table - which stood on a dryer corner of the flagstones in the kitchen - could be saved if he replaced two of the feet. Furniture in the large bedroom - where one of my great-uncles had covered the floor with a sheet of linoleum - had fared better.

The small chest in which my grandmother had kept her woollen blanket and the drop-leaf table that was only used on special occasions could be restored without replacing any parts. One leg of the small, roughly-hewn pine bed had poked through the linoleum and sunk in to the mud below. Mark advised me to leave it because it would require extensive repair, but I told him to take it anyway.

The small mirror from my great-grandmother's dresser lay on it's side - woodworm tracks snaked through its frame and the mirror's silver backing had mostly flaked away. After Mark had treated it for woodworm, I decided to take it back in my suitcase. In the barn, I also found a rusted, cast-iron oven which had been used to bake bread. I packed it into my suitcase as well.

I owe MArk an enormous debt of gratitude. He painstakingly refinished the furniture, replacing rotten feet with finely crafted, pegged substitutes. Then, when I couldn't find anyone to pack and box the pieces, he did that as well.

After I returned to America, it took me more than a month and scores of telephone calls to find a company that would ship the furniture from Sligo at something less than a stratospheric price. At the end of the day, flying the furniture to America by DHL, airfreight proved to be the most cost effective option.

When it was all totalled the furniture restoration project cost enough money to buy an antique Georgian table or a not-so-new used car. Why did I go through all this trouble and expense? Perhaps it is because you can buy an antique table and you can buy a used car, but you cannot buy family history. Each scratch and nick on those pieces of furniture tell the story of the family that lived and died and laughed and cried around them.

My grandmother would have been 102 years old this year. Her little blanket chest now sits at the foot of my sister's bed in Lee, Massachusetts, the drop-leaf table has a place of honour in my father's living room, the cast iron oven sits on my hearth in Santa Monica, California, and, finally the kitchen table at which my grandmother and her family shared their meals, sits safe, dry, and covered in my father's cellar awaiting its new life.

In January of 2005, shortly before I finished this article, my wife, Sabine, and I celebrated the birth of our son, Alexander James. I like to imagine him sitting in at that kitchen table one day, eating cookies and drinking milk. I'll watch him trace his fingers along the woodworms' intricate paths as he asks me where they came from.

Then, I'll tell him that breakfast, lunch, and dinner were served on that very same kitchen table to 10 small children, including his great-grandmother, in a small, white cottage with a red door and a thatched roof overlooking a valley of emerald green fields and crystal clear lakes.

I'll also tell him that the little table left its corner of the cottage and travelled back down the hill in a horse trailer attached to a Japanese SUV driven by an expatriated American furniture restorer living in Sligo.

Finally, I'll tell him that the little kitchen table boarded a German plane and flew across the Atlantic Ocean to continue the legacy of the McManus family of East Barrs in the United States.
Postscript: Mary Anne McManus was the only one of her siblings to marry. Her family still retains ownership of the farm in East Barrs.

James J. Owens is a writer and an Assistant Professor of Clinical Management Communication at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business. He lives in Santa Monica, California with his wife, Sabine, their son, Alexandra James, and their two dogs. He can be reached at:

Courtesy of James J. Owens and The Leitrim Observer
August 2005